Monday, December 30, 2013

On the road to Ibagué, a detour into the past

Coqui and Ingrid, after eighteen years apart
Last week, my wife Ingrid and I drove an hour through a fertile basin of the Andes to visit Coqui, a friend she hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.
Despite the years and distance between them — Coqui lives in the central Colombian city of Ibagué, Ingrid in New York — they have a staggering amount in common. Both of their fathers were murdered in violence in Colombia.  They went to medical school together. And both are doctors now, having recovered from personal tragedy to live full, stable lives.
On the road to Ibague, Colombia
On the road to Ibague, Colombia
Last month, on a whim, Ingrid touched base with Coqui (her nickname) for the first time in years and proposed a get-together during our annual vacation in Colombia. As she hung up the phone, it occurred to her why she’d reached out. She felt strong enough in her own life — emotionally and economically — to reach back through time to share her accomplishments with Coqui. To see how Coqui was faring — to renew the friendship that once gave them the strength to make it through the tough times.
But as we neared Ibagué, followed by Ingrid’s family in another car, my wife grew sad as she pointed out changes in the scenery along the highway. Business and housing developments had sprung up, pushing into farm fields. The highway was smoother – a toll road now — having lost some of its charm.
Homecenter comes to Ibague
Big box stores come to Ibagué
It reminded Ingrid of the distance between she and her old friend. Would they rediscover the familiarity that drew them together? Or feel awkward because of changes wrought by time? Ingrid’s anxiety increased as we drove into Ibagué. Her memories of the place were wiped clean. “It’s not a town anymore,” Ingrid said, simply. “It’s a city.” Where were the simple neighborhoods, with small family houses and uncrowded streets divided by islands of trees? Exito and Homecenter, Colombian big-box chains, had sprung up out of nowhere. Roads had widened, open spaces paved over with well-to-do housing developments.
I did my best to reassure Ingrid that all around Ibagué, wherever we looked, the Andes mountains jutted up in the distance, as ever – green and craggy and indomitable. A record of the past that can never be swept away.
Ingrid’s memories of Coqui are mostly happy ones.
They met at medical school in Bogotá in 1985, where they sat next to each other for six years in class, since their last names began with “B.” Coqui was pretty – the sister of a Colombian beauty queen. This thrilled Ingrid. She and Coqui became fast friends.
They had hard times at medical school, known for tough classes many students didn’t pass. But they also let off steam together. Since Coqui was from outside Bogotá she had her own apartment, a precious commodity at school, where most students lived with their parents. Coqui hosted more than her share of parties, inviting students who sat near her in class — whose last names began with A, B, C, and D. The parties were a time to unwind from the stress of studying. Lots of frenetic dancing to salsa, merengue, and other music of Colombia.
After the murder of Ingrid’s father in 1989, Ingrid and Coqui drifted apart. Ingrid worked three jobs as a doctor to make ends meet, supporting her widowed mother and two younger brothers, trying to keep her father’s factory afloat. She didn’t have time for socializing.
Coqui, meanwhile, went through her own rough patch. The last time Ingrid saw her was in 1995, at Coqui’s lavish wedding – a marriage that collapsed just a year later. A few years later, Coqui’s brother was almost murdered in a kidnapping attempt.
For her part, Ingrid fled the instability of Colombia and moved to the United States, where she met me, married, bore our daughter, and opened her own medical practice.
As we wended through traffic in Ibagué, so many landmarks were gone from the city that Ingrid got lost, and kept circling back. We were late. We finally came to the gated community where Coqui lives with her second husband and three sons.
Outside Coqui's home, in the foothills of the Andes
Outside Coqui’s home, mountains as indomitable as ever
Coqui was waiting for us outside their spacious tile-roof home. She had olive-toned skin and black hair, slender in her dark dress, as beautiful as Ingrid’s memory of her. She and Ingrid embraced with smiles and glistening eyes, but no tears. “Hey you got lost!” Coqui laughed. The first thing out of her mouth was a joke, which instantly relaxed Ingrid.
She welcomed us, and Ingrid’s family, into her house. We sat in her patio overlooking her small backyard, filled with a large Nativity scene. Her husband Marcelo arrived home. He is a tall handsome businessman who used to be Coqui’s boss, which is how they met.
Our family and hers chatted over lunch of sancocho, a soup rich with meat and potatoes and
The Ruminator catches up on some much-needed sleep
Catching up on some much-needed sleep
plantains, and a side of arroz con pollo, Ingrid and Coqui talked as if they’d never been apart. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to keep up, and I took a well-deserved nap after lunch. But Ingrid later told me they spoke little of their fathers’ deaths, which is perhaps as it should be.
We said goodbye a few hours later, hugged, and promised to see each other next year – or, at least, before the next eighteen years go by. As we drove away, the city of Ibagué seemed a little less foreign to Ingrid, the changes having settled in. Because sometimes we revisit the past, to reality-check if the memory is accurate. To see how time has colored our recollections.
Ingrid received confirmation last week.
David Kalish is the author of the comedic novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March.

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